Spies That Fly

PBS Airdate: January 7, 2003
Transcript updated for February 24, 2004 rebroadcast
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: In Afghanistan, terrorists come out under the cover of night, but this time darkness fails to protect them. The Afghan rebels were attacked by an American strike plane firing lethal, laser-guided missiles, but leading the attacker to its prey was a shadowy flying spy called the Predator.

The Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV. This plane has no windows because it has no pilot inside. It is a remote-controlled, airborne robot that is flown by pilots sitting on the ground. Its powerful cameras can spy on enemies, day or night. And this visual information can tell commanders where the enemy is located and when to send in strike planes to attack.

Its own missiles have destroyed critical targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, making Predator the UAV star. But it is hardly alone. From flying spies that fit in your pocket to soaring jets that roam halfway around the world, today's UAVs are capable of far more than aerial surveillance and in time may completely change the way we fight wars.

ROBERT F. BEHLER (Major General, U.S. Air Force): And it could be, some day, that someone is flying a simulator some place in the United States which is actually flying a combat vehicle some place else.

NARRATOR: But many of our UAVs have been shot down or crashed all on their own, leading some analysts to wonder if they are as good as their backers claim.

JOHN PIKE ( We continue to be several years and several billion dollars away from actually fulfilling their promise.

NARRATOR: Yet that very promise, to know an enemy's whereabouts, to fight air wars without pilots, could make UAVs the most significant weapons of the 21st century. Spies that Fly, coming at you on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: In the first Persian Gulf War, America unveiled a dazzling array of high technology weapons led by computer-guided missiles, precision bombs and stealthy aircraft invisible to Iraqi radars. These weapons have helped transform America's ability to fight wars from afar - with technology rather than foot soldiers.

Now there are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles like the Predator. The Air Force claims that these flying spies have recently been successful at locating missile launchers and tracking enemy troop movements in Iraq, as well as eliminating terrorist threats in Yemen and Afghanistan.

Without the need for cockpits or pilots, UAVs can assume a variety of shapes and perform tasks manned aircraft could not or should not do.

Today, the military is actively developing full-combat UAVs that can withstand punishing G-forces human pilots could hardly bear. And UAVs will be able to go into areas where chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons would threaten the safety of piloted aircraft.

These capabilities do not exist yet. But what UAVs can do right now is spy on an enemy with extraordinary precision—a development that has taken billions of dollars and over five decades to achieve.

Long before unmanned aerial vehicles, this piloted aircraft, the U-2, was synonymous with the words "spy plane" and for a time was America's best kept Cold War secret.

THOMAS S. BLANTON (National Security Archives): There is a wonderful memo from Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, writing to the director of the CIA in 1954, saying, "You ought to get into this program of overhead photography, and I know just how to do it. One flight will take pictures of a strip of the Soviet Union, 250 miles wide and 2,500 miles long. Imagine what you can see then." The CIA went ahead with it.

NARRATOR: The U-2 could cruise 12 miles above the earth for hours at a time and take still photographs from this dizzying height. Its panoramic cameras held a mile-long spool of black and white film that produced photographs of such detailed resolution, their quality has rarely been matched even today.

And since the Russians could not reach them with fighters or missiles, U-2s had free reign to photograph the most secret Soviet military sites. But it took a trained analyst to understand what the photos revealed.

DINO BRUGIONI (Central Intelligence Agency, retired): Now, one of the things the Soviets did, they had a penchant for what we call "horizontal security," so that their strategic installations, they would have as many as four or five fences. And that's very visible from above. So one, two, three, four, five fences. So finding missiles sites in the Soviet Union, it wasn't that hard.

NARRATOR: For the pilots who captured these images, the long photographic missions were anything but easy.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: If a U-2 pilot is flying for, let's say, nine-hours-plus, one of the problems that we have to worry about is, basically, staying awake sometimes, because you are in an orbit for long, long periods of time.

DINO BRUGIONI: There was no provision for defecating. The U-2s were offered diapers and they turned it down.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: You know, I have flown over denied territory, and after a period of time in a space suit, I mean, you just physiologically can't stay there any longer.

NARRATOR: But soon there was a far greater problem for U-2 pilots—when the latest Soviet surface-to-air missiles could shoot them down.

The first pilot to get hit was Francis Gary Powers. Though he survived, the wreckage of his plane revealed the extent of U.S. spying. Powers was politically embarrassing to the United States, but the U-2 did not stop flying and in 1962, proved its immense value to the American public.

JOHN F. KENNEDY (President of the United States, 1961-1963, file footage): This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build up on the island of Cuba.

NARRATOR: In October of 1962, U-2s had taken photographs showing the Soviets building secret ballistic missiles sites on Cuba. Dino Brugioni was one of the first to see the evidence.

DINO BRUGIONI: But what drew their eye was that these objects didn't belong. This is ranch country, and here they were seeing 100-foot tents, 65-foot objects. And these weren't manure spreaders or...these weren't things you would associate with a ranch.

NARRATOR: Armed with this conclusive evidence, President Kennedy challenged the Soviets to remove the missiles or else. The Russians backed down, withdrew their missiles, and the crisis subsided.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: I may say, gentlemen, that you take excellent pictures.

NARRATOR: Although the U-2 was hero of the moment, there is a little-known irony to the story. Even before the Russians withdrew, U-2 pilot Rudolph Anderson was killed over Cuba when his plane was shot down by Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Piloting a spy plane was becoming extremely hazardous.

Fortunately, America had developed another aerial spy that could take on dangerous missions, risk-free, because it was unreachable and unmanned. The Corona spy satellite orbited above the range of conventional weapons and was capable of even far greater surveillance feats than the U-2.

THOMAS S. BLANTON: I'll give you the basic comparison. There were 24 flights of U-2s over the Soviet Union from 1956 to 1960. The twenty-fourth was Powers. The first single Corona spy satellite mission took more footage of the Soviet Union than all 24 of those flights put together.

NARRATOR: Corona's cameras were programmed to snap pictures only when its flight path brought it over targeted areas. But how would it get its film back? Unlike the U-2, satellites cannot land. So Corona had to jettison its spent film in capsules which were plucked out of the air by catcher planes.

THOMAS S. BLANTON: As ridiculous as it seems to be catching canisters of films out of the middle air with a net, they brought back miles of footage of the number one adversary the United States faced. The Corona satellite system worked like a charm.

NARRATOR: But the information it provided was days old by the time the film got down and developed. This would soon change when virtually all satellites, regardless of their function, carried transmitters that could send data back to earth electronically. And once surveillance satellites could transmit pictures instantaneously, they looked like the perfect aerial spies. But they weren't.

TOM EHRHARD (Colonel, U.S. Air Force): One of the problems with satellites is that they're moving very rapidly over the face of the earth. And so if you really want to take a picture of something that...where you need to loiter for a long period of time, the satellite does not allow you to do it. In fact, it takes sometimes hours or even days to be able to come back to that same point and take another picture.

NARRATOR: This means an enemy could evade a satellite by moving itself or its weapons. Although U-2s were better at tracking enemy movements, they could still be shot down. So our best aerial spies were becoming too vulnerable and too slow.

Both limitations were made painfully clear in Vietnam. Cloudy and covered with jungle, it was difficult to get clear pictures of the enemy from either of our flying spies. Even worse, North Vietnam had acquired the latest Soviet anti-aircraft guns and missiles which could be quickly moved from place to place. And since we couldn't find these weapons, American pilots were always at risk of getting shot down.

TOM EHRHARD: We lost pilots, we lost aircraft. And many of those pilots ended up being huge political liabilities because they ended up being prisoners of war.

NARRATOR: Not only were pilots at risk, American ground troops kept blundering into enemy traps. What the U.S. desperately needed was an unmanned aircraft that could find our adversaries before they found us.

Our first UAV was a target decoy called "Lightning Bug." The military outfitted the jet-fast drone with automatic cameras and a primitive computer that let operators program its route by setting target points on a map and calculating the speed and altitude required to reach them. But this crude navigational system was not very accurate, and the Bug would often parachute back to earth without one frame of useful film in its cameras.

Toward the end of the conflict, it did bring back some useful photographs but not enough to justify its extraordinary cost.

TOM EHRHARD: The Lightning Bug still is the most expensive drone system the United States has ever bought. In today dollars, it's about $4.5 billion were sunk into that system to give us unmanned aerial reconnaissance over Vietnam and China.

NARRATOR: Lighting Bug was too ambitious for its time. It lacked the sophisticated computer and guidance technology available to later UAVs.

But Vietnam would also reveal the limitations of other weapons systems as well. And in the years following the war, the military would concentrate on developing stealthier aircraft and precision-guided bombs.

But building a better UAV would fall to the Israelis. In 1982 the on-again, off-again Arab-Israeli conflict burst into a full-scale war in Southern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Here, too, Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles wreaked havoc on an air force.

MARVIN KLEMOW (Israel Aircraft Industries International, retired): The Bekaa Valley was a death trap. There was so much sophisticated Russian equipment—both the radars to operate anti-aircraft missiles and the anti-aircraft equipment—that the Israelis had to find a solution to counter this very, very serious threat.

NARRATOR: What the Israelis rolled out to meet that threat was a meek little propeller-driven UAV with no firepower whatsoever. A much simpler concept than Lightning Bug, it was controlled from the ground with radio signals just like a big model airplane. And like a model airplane, it was slow and had limited range. But the Israelis installed signal generators on the little flyers that created the radar signature of much bigger planes.

On June 9, 1982, the Israelis sent a wave of UAVs straight at the Syrian missile sites.

MARVIN KLEMOW: The UAVs sent out false signals that made the enemy think that they were fighter airplanes, and they turned on the radars.

TOM EHRHARD: Once those systems became active, they were then vulnerable to the jets that would come in and launch anti-radiation missiles at those systems.

MARVIN KLEMOW: It allowed the Israeli Air Force to destroy all of the radars which control the ground-to-air rockets.

TOM EHRHARD: Once the SA-6 systems were neutralized, the Israeli Air Force had free reign over the Bekaa Valley and proceeded to shoot down almost any Syrian aircraft that got into the air.

MARVIN KLEMOW: If I remember my numbers, it was 96 to nothing.

NARRATOR: The Israeli UAVs also carried live video cameras. Now they could track enemy movements in real time and, if necessary, direct ground or air forces to take them out.

TOM EHRHARD: The Israeli success in 1982 had a great impact on the U.S. military because, frankly, we didn't have that kind of a capability at that point. As late as 1983, when the horrible Marine Corps barracks bombing occurred, we still did not have any ability to use an unmanned vehicle to get up over the top of Lebanon and Beirut and see what was happening.

NARRATOR: In 1983, a terrorist car bomb destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 300 men. Once again, a swift and stealthy enemy had inflicted a devastating blow. So the U.S. quickly developed its version of an Israeli-style UAV to help keep track of enemy activities on the ground.

Called "Pioneer," it first saw action in the Gulf War. It was not impressive looking, but it had powerful video cameras and could stay aloft for hours at a time. It was assigned to Navy battleships to give gunners a bird's eye view of their targets.

MARVIN KLEMOW: They saw the result immediately of where the shells landed, and then if they had to fire more, or go to the left 100 yards, or go to the right 100 yards, or go further out 50 yards—real-time targeting and damage assessment, perfect real-time intelligence and results.

NARRATOR: Taking off from the battleships was easy; landing was not because the Pioneer had to be caught in a net. They managed to catch it most of the time. But the result often grounded the plane for repairs. Ironically, another Pioneer drawback led to one of the most bizarre incidents of the war.

TOM EHRHARD: Really the Pioneer is not totally stealthy. It had a kind of a loud lawn mower type of an engine, and the Iraqis finally figured out that when you hear this lawnmower engine overhead, soon thereafter there were very large rounds that would descend on them from these battleship guns. And so Iraqi soldiers actually surrendered to a UAV. They waved the white flag because they knew, "When I hear the lawn mower engine overhead, rounds were going to follow."

NARRATOR: Small UAVs like the Pioneer have limited range and flight time. They are beneficial to the Israelis because their enemies are nearby, but they are not as strategically useful to the United States.

JOHN PIKE: The United States is a big country. Our enemies are big. We operate over very long ranges. And so for the United States, we basically need much larger drones that can fly for a longer time, and until recently the technology simply wasn't there to do it reliably.

NARRATOR: The Pioneer can fly only if it can receive the radio signals sent from the ground station. This line-of-sight link is also necessary to get video images back to the station. Once it flies over the horizon, the link is broken and the plane cannot function.

To defeat the curve of the earth, a UAV needs another plane, or satellite, to relay the signals back and forth. Such a UAV would need more room for a satellite receiver and a powerful transmitter. And if it could also access Global Positioning Satellites, it would know its location over the Earth at all times and would never waver off course.

The first UAV that could do all this was the Predator.

THOMAS J. CASSIDY, JR. (Aeronautical Systems): The real key to making Predator different than what we had before is the fact that the airplane will fly for 40 hours if you want it to stay that long. You eliminate all this transit time back and forth that you have with smaller tactical airplanes.

TOM EHRHARD: The Predator was first used in 1995, over Bosnia. It was a very long loitering system that could fly at about 20 or 25 thousand feet. It was quite successful early on. It was a revelation to many of our commanders who, for the first time, could watch, in real time on their desks, a television that was giving them imagery of action that was occurring in Bosnia.

NARRATOR: In Bosnia, Predator had a mixed reputation because icing problems caused it to crash. But its performance improved by the time it was used in Afghanistan. Predator is extremely difficult to see or hear.

This one is flying at less than a thousand feet. At 20,000 feet, it is virtually impossible to spot. It has a long, 50-foot wing span that helps it glide and hover on very little fuel. Its upside down tail protects the propeller, which is in the rear so it won't block the view of its cameras and other sensors located underneath in a swiveling mount.

Here are the lenses for its color daylight camera, its infrared camera which sees heat signatures at night, and its Synthetic Aperture Radar, a dazzling new sensor that can literally see through clouds. Normal radar can also see through clouds, but the objects show up as blips on a screen.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: We had really highly trained people to interpret radar images. We used to call it "blobology" because you saw these images that looked like blobs, and they'd come back and say, "Well, that is an SA-5." And you'd look at it and go, "Right."

NARRATOR: But Synthetic Aperture Radar can take those blobs and recreate a real world object.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: Today, I can interpret what it is, so the resolution from radar is incredible.

NARRATOR: And Predators are equipped with one other system that proved highly successful in both of the Iraq wars.

THOMAS J. CASSIDY, JR.: We also carry a laser designator so that we can designate for missiles fired from Predator or for missiles fired from tactical airplanes.

NARRATOR: Once Predator was armed with precision-guided Hellfire missiles, it became a killer as well as a hunter and today performs both missions.

The Predator is operated from a ground control station, which is brought to the closest and safest airfield. Inside, an actual Air Force pilot flies it with a joystick or puts it on autopilot as if he were in a real cockpit. He monitors the plane's altitude and speed and can even see through a camera mounted in the plane's nose. A sensor operator scans video monitors watching for enemy activity.

In this exercise, the team has found an unauthorized vehicle in a restricted area. The Predator's camera tracks and notes its position and stays glued to the target, which cannot escape, even when the driver realizes he's being followed.

But here we see the camera zoomed in on the target. When the Predator's cameras try to survey a wider area, they are not as effective.

JOHN PIKE: Predator is a very good way for following a truck driving down a highway; it's not a very good way to look over an entire city to try to find that truck to begin with. It's very much like looking through the proverbial soda straw. If you know where the target is, if you know pretty much what you're looking for, it's a good way to keep track of that target. But that narrow field of view camera really isn't going to help you find things unless you already know where they are.

NARRATOR: The lower Predator flies, the clearer its images become. But this increases its vulnerability, so it's safer to operate at night. But this is not always possible.

Here, a Predator monitoring activities in Iraq is being targeted by Iraqi missiles. Although this one missed, others have not, as we see in this Al-Jazeera footage. But downed Predators are perhaps the best argument for using UAVs in the first place.

THOMAS J. CASSIDY, JR.: Predators are often put in harm's way that manned airplanes would not be put in that same situation. We sometimes have to put Predators in an area where they have to persist at low altitude, and the closer you get to the gun, the better chance they have of shooting you down. If manned airplanes were doing these same missions, there is a pretty good chance that they would get shot down, too.

NARRATOR: The Pentagon considers the Predator a success, despite its rocky start in Bosnia. Today, it's helped spawn a whole new generation of UAVs including the Global Hawk. Rushed to Afghanistan while still in flight testing, this is the largest and most ambitious UAV the military has ever fielded.

Global Hawk is jet powered and cruises at 65,000 feet. Flying at this height, it is vulnerable only to the most sophisticated missile systems. And though it is monitored like the Predator, it doesn't require a ground pilot to fly it. This plane can be programmed to fly itself from takeoff to touchdown.

CARL O. JOHNSON (Northrop Grumman): Global Hawk is autonomous; it flies itself. There's no joystick, there's no man in the loop. You just press a button and it's "go." And the guy on the ground who is monitoring the system can go take a break, he can go home, another guy can take his shift. It's a much easier logistics problem.

NARRATOR: Currently, Global Hawk is a no-weapons, pure surveillance platform. Its big wings help it glide and conserve fuel. And it has recently flown from California to Australia on automatic pilot and without refueling. Once there, it proved the extraordinary capacity of its three-foot resolution cameras.

At 12 miles high, its infrared night camera can not only see planes on an airfield, it can detect the heat signatures, like fingerprints, of those jets that have just taken off. And because it flies higher than Predator, the Global Hawk can survey a much wider swath of terrain.

TOM EHRHARD: What made Global Hawk important in Afghanistan was, for the first time, you could have a surveillance system that could loiter for a very long time over the target and hit many, many targets of interest, whereas the Predator was a propeller-driven system that is very slow, and could only loiter over one area for a certain period of time. Even though it's not an operational system yet, Global Hawk was very important to our operations in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: But the two Global Hawks sent to Afghanistan both crashed. And so, too, did this prototype, which we see going down over a California test range. In a desperate attempt to regain control, operators try releasing fuel to make it lighter. But like most pilotless planes, it was not equipped with a costly backup control system. So the big jet keeps spinning and tumbling until it crashes, the cause linked to software problems.

TOM EHRHARD: Most of our manned aircraft have multiple systems that can take over in case of failure. The issue is expense. How much do you want to spend to make it a reliable system? And the plain fact of the matter is that UAVs are expensive. In order to make a very sophisticated air vehicle do the kinds of things that the U.S. military wants it to do, it is going to cost money.

NARRATOR: The sales pitch for UAVs used to be that they were cheap and expendable. At 40 million dollars each, the Global Hawk is neither. In the Iraq War, a single Global Hawk is reported to have flown many successful missions. But is it enough to justify its cost?

ROBERT F. BEHLER: The Global Hawk has done a fantastic job for us. We're going to make it better by what we have found from some of these minor setbacks. If in World War I, we stopped flying airplanes because people were crashing airplanes during training, where would we be? And it ain't going to stop. We're going to make more, we're going to make them better, and we're going to employ them more. I mean that is the future.

NARRATOR: Critics of the Global Hawk are not as optimistic.

JOHN PIKE: The United States has been working on reconnaissance drones for upwards of half a century now, and the Predator is the only one that's really gone into production with some degree of satisfaction. We are on the verge of being able to get these UAVs to give us some really important capabilities, but we continue to be several years and several billion dollars away from actually fulfilling their promise.

NARRATOR: Although UAVs have had their ups and downs, this hasn't stopped the military from trying new ones, especially smaller, less expensive models. The Navy's Rich Foch has created more small UAVs than anyone.

RICH FOCH: As you can see here, the airplane comes apart in five modular sections, with a no-tool assembly. Dragon Warrior is designed to be transported in the back of a HUMVEE. We were looking at the ability to take the small UAV technologies and fit a small aircraft into an American Tourister suitcase. Because this is the type of vehicle that a special agent might be interested in using, it's numbered 007.

This is one of my very favorite small UAVs. This aircraft was initially designed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars for planetary exploration and be deployed from a space capsule.

NARRATOR: The history of small UAVs reveals far more failures than successes. But these miniature flyers at least have the virtue of being vastly cheaper and a lot more fun. Now, after decades of limited results, there is finally optimism over this plane. Originally developed in Rich Foch's laboratory, it is called Dragon Eye.

One immediate question for small UAVs is, "Why?" With soaring platforms like Predator or Global Hawk, why develop midget flying spies?

WILLIAM D. CATTO (Brigadier General, U.S. Marine Corps): You know, when you see a Predator, or a Global Hawk, as they have been used in Kosovo or in Afghanistan, the information for those always goes to higher headquarters. It's very difficult to get that information to a company commander to give him information he needs in a timely manner.

NARRATOR: The marines want Dragon Eye to help ground units facing dangerous missions. In this exercise, they are seeing if a regular squadron commander can figure out the best strategy for using it.

The little UAV operates just like the big ones, only on a much smaller scale. Its ground station is a rugged laptop computer which controls the plane's flight and receives video signals from its tiny camera. The men can also see the video in glare-proof glasses.

Dragon Eye can deploy from almost anywhere, and its real-time video surveillance should make this kind of assault far less dangerous.

WILLIAM D. CATTO: He can take that UAV, fly it along his route that he wants to walk, and it will tell him what's on that route. Is there any kind of threats, vehicles, hazards? Anything he needs to be aware of?

Then when he gets to the town, he can set that UAV up in an overhead orbit so he'll have real-time surveillance on what's happening in that town so that he can act on it.

NARRATOR: Without Dragon Eye, the Marines would have had to send an advance team to scout the road to town, and the nooks and crannies between the buildings. This is the most dangerous assignment any soldier can face, particularly in an urban setting.

Dragon Eye is easy to launch with a store-bought bungee cord. But one of its biggest problems right now is training non-pilots to fly it, a task much harder than it looks. This is why the little airplane is built tough.

WILLIAM D. CATTO: The vehicle is designed for landings where it can crash. If it comes apart, you can put it back together, reassemble it and fly it again.

NARRATOR: The goal is to make Dragon Eye virtually autonomous so that anyone can fly it. Marines would simply have to plot its proposed course on a video map then let the plane's laptop computer fly it along a pre-assigned route.

At the moment, the jury is still out on Dragon Eye. But more importantly, many in the military wonder if this small UAV is small enough.

Here's the Black Widow. It works like a Dragon Eye but is the size of a portable CD player. It was created by AeroVironment's Matt Keennon. The remarkable six-inch flying disk can stay up for 30 minutes at altitudes of 600 feet or more. It returns high quality video images from a camera about the size of a penny. But its limited flight time and its instability in any kind of inclement weather are serious drawbacks to overcome.

ROBERT C. MICHELSON (Georgia Tech): When you have a military mission, you can't wait for the wind to stop blowing to deploy your vehicle to find out if there are bad guys on the other side of the hill.

NARRATOR: But what about indoors where tiny flyers would not be bothered by the weather? Here, for the first time, roofs or walls would not thwart a flying spy. But an inside UAV would have to be extremely small, and it would have to fly like, well, a fly, flapping wings and all.

ROBERT C. MICHELSON: If you're trying to make a small robot vehicle fly inside, uh, fixed wing vehicles fly too fast to go down corridors and make turns. But, with a flapping wing device the energy is much lower and spread out in time, and we could survive a wall strike, perhaps, and continue the mission.

NARRATOR: A bug-like flyer once seemed impossible. But at the cutting edge of UAV technology, researchers like Rob Michelson are studying the complex process of insect flight in an effort to build a micro-UAV.

Insects and birds flap their wings. This not only propels them forward, it gives them the lift they need to achieve flight. Fixed wing flyers work differently. They need speed and airflow around their wings to create enough lift to fly. Insects experience the air differently than planes. To a bee, the air is thick like water. In fact, insects do not so much fly as swim. Microflyers that work like this would make the perfect spying "flies," if we could only figure out how the real ones do it.

ROBERT C. MICHELSON: One of the problems, to date, is that we didn't understand how insect flight really worked. Most people are probably familiar with the old adage that the bumblebee is impossible. Well, that's only because the equations for flight didn't account for all that was going on in a bumble bee wing. Clearly the bumblebee flies, the equations just didn't show it.

NARRATOR: Today, researchers are getting close to solving the puzzle. They now know that insects use their wings to create powerful air currents and wakes, and then use those currents to help propel them along.

MICHAEL DICKINSON (Caltech): It turns out that insects are capable of extracting energy from the wake of the previous stroke. This occurs simply because when a wing moves through the air it's inducing flow behind the wing, and as the wing flips back some of that flow is actually directed back towards the wing. So, effectively, it's increasing the velocity at which the wing is moving.

NARRATOR: Michael Dickinson studies the wing motions of flies with an eye toward replicating their movements mechanically.

MICHAEL DICKINSON: Flies have a remarkably sophisticated control system that enables them to maneuver and fly stably, and I think there are many lessons we can learn from flies as we begin to design a robotic insect.

NARRATOR: He calls his mechanical wings "robofly" and places the flappers in mineral oil to recreate the resistance tiny insects receive from the air.

MICHAEL DICKINSON: Robofly allows us to generate wing motions that might be useful for our robotic insect. We can easily test the efficiency of various wing motion patterns before trying to program them into a small robotic insect.

NARRATOR: Even if we understood all the mysteries of insect flight, creating a robotic version this small seems a daunting task, not to mention the minuscule video camera it would have to carry.

And there is also the question of power. Our smallest micro vehicles still rely on batteries. A very tiny UAV could not carry the weight of a battery with enough juice to fly it. One alternative might be heat or solar cells. Solar cells are already powering the giant Helios UAV which can reach 100,000 feet and stay aloft for months at a time. What would a drop of this kind of energy do for a fly-sized UAV?

Until we solve the power problem, a micro-UAV will have to await the distant future, but there's no doubting the advantage these tiny spies would give the military.

ROBERT C. MICHELSON: Indoors, there are no assets that can provide information back to war fighters that are about to go into a building. You can have crawling robots, uh, ordinance disposal robots that can climb stairs and come down hallways to look for things, but these are large, clunky devices and are easily noticed.

What you'd really like to have is a device that could penetrate deep within a building in a very short amount of time to be able to find hostages, find illegal activities going on inside the building, any number of things that would be of interest to covert agencies or the military.

NARRATOR: While the search for microflyers is still in the lab, the military has scores of UAV programs in active development. And the reason for this is fairly simple. They will change the way wars are fought.

UAVs are integral to the U.S. military's vision of fighting standoff wars that limit the risk to our own soldiers. In this futuristic scenario, data from UAVs, radar planes and orbiting satellites can be monitored from distant control centers. These images would provide much of the information decision-makers need to direct and even fight wars far from the battlefield itself.

And they someday expect to have a standoff way to translate this information into action with an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle or UCAV. Stealthy, jet-powered, and capable of autonomous flight, these would be light years ahead of the armed Predator and could even dogfight like manned jets. More importantly, UCAVs would probably become the initial strike force in a full-scale war.

TOM EHRHARD: A UCAV will be one of the first systems you'll normally send into an environment because we never have perfect intelligence about what our adversary is doing. So it's very attractive to be able to send a highly capable, lethal system that is not manned before we start sending manned aircraft in there.

NARRATOR: But will pilotless strike planes increase targeting errors like this one in Kosovo, when a Bomb mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy killing several innocent people? The Air Force contends that UAV cameras have the potential to decrease all bombing errors by providing better intelligence to decision-makers.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: In the future we will see less wrong targets hit because of UAVs, because we will fuse multiple information sources to have better, precise information of that target.

NARRATOR: The Air Force uses this Afghan strike footage to make its case that UAVs can eliminate mistakes and increase target accuracy. A Predator has followed a confirmed group of terrorists to this village.

U.S. Air Force Pilot: Square building is mosque. Do not engage the mosque.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: Mosques, according to our rules of engagement, are off limits. We don't hit those. But we knew all around this area, all around those buildings, were lots of Taliban and Al Qaeda. So we were waiting for just the right time.

NARRATOR: As instructed, the mosque was spared. But the terrorists were hit with lethal accuracy by a manned strike plane directed to this spot by an unmanned Predator. If an armed Predator had performed this mission on its own, it would have followed the same rules of engagement.

But as unmanned planes assume a greater combat role will our "Top Gun" pilots resist the coming regime?

TOM EHRHARD: This idea that pilots are obstructing UAVs is called the "white scarf syndrome." You simply can't make that argument in an environment where this one nation is pursuing UAVs like no other. In many cases, it is pilots who have been pursuing this technology because of the way it compliments their job in combat. Many of these UAVs will do jobs that pilots definitely don't want to do because they're going to get killed.

NARRATOR: Whether "right stuff" pilots will really embrace the new hardware remains to be seen. But the number of UAVs are increasing everyday and are going beyond military tasks as well. They are already conducting weather analysis and watching borders for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

After September 11, UAVs flew surveillance missions over the White House. And there are plans for UAVs to provide security for dams and pipelines, all missions that were once flown by manned aircraft. And there is clearly more to come.

ROBERT F. BEHLER: We cannot un-invent uninhabited air vehicles. They are here to stay. It is the future. But in my lifetime I will tell you that we have the ability that I could get on a commercial airplane and there may not be a pilot on it.

COMPUTER VOICE: This is your pilot speaking. Please fasten your seat belts, relax and enjoy the flight.

NARRATOR: But will anyone buy a ticket?

North Korean missile activity, mass graves in Kosovo. On NOVA's Website, a specialist in surveillance photography unveils imagery that brought to life chilling historical events, at or America Online, Keyword PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video, at 1-800-255-9424.

Next time on NOVA, at a remote outpost of World War II, Bomber 31 takes off into the night and vanishes. PBS and NOVA present The Last Flight of Bomber 31.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

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Spies That Fly

Produced And Directed by
Larry Klein

Written by
Larry Klein
David Axelrod

Edited by
Sam Green

Narrated By
Will Lyman

Associate Producer
Alison J. Richards

Rob Morsberger

Cronin Design

Bob Elfstrom
Richard Chisolm
Tom Kaufman
Nick Dance
Steve Downer

Sound Recordists
Paul Rusnak
Doug Dunderdale
Dickie Bird

Production Manager
Marie Wiljanen

Post Production Services
Henninger Media

Additional Graphics
4:2:2 Video Graphics

Archival Material
AAI Corporation
ABC News
Defense Visual Information Center
Dept. of Defense
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Israel Aircraft Industries, Ltd.
Lockheed Martin
National Archives
National Reconnaissance Organization
Naval Research Laboratory
Northrop Grumman Corporation
Pioneer UAV, Inc.
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Navy Blue Angels

Special Thanks
Lt. Col. Dave Branham
Marine Corps Warfighting Lab Jenny Holbert
Lou Bieda
Cynthia Curiel
Cyndi Weigerbauger
Dave Parlett
Randy Crawford
Richard Foch
Daryl Davidson
Sandy A. Schroeder
Rinaldo Veseliza
Robert G. Richards

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Queene Coyne

Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Holly Archibald
Denise Drago

Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Green Umbrella, LLC for WGBH/Boston in association with Production Group, Inc.

© 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved

Spies That Fly

Spy Photos That Made History

Spy Photos That Made History
Surveillance photographs of Kosovo, Iraq, and other hotspots.

Master of the Surveillance Image

Master of the Surveillance Image
Meet former CIA photo analyst Dino Brugioni.

Time Line of UAVs

Time Line of UAVs
Explore the history of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Imaging With Radar

Imaging With Radar
What can synthetic aperture radar "see"?


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